Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Best Cover and Possible Future Covers

Carolyn hasn't done too many covers. The ones that I can think of are as follows:

"Jacob and 2 Women" by Rich Mullins, on Awesome God: A Tribute to Rich Mullins
"River of Love" by T-Bone Burnett, on Travelers
"Love is So Blind" by Mark Heard, on Orphans of God: A Tribute to Mark Heard
"To See Your Face" by Mark Heard, on Pollyanna's Attic
"I've Got a Hope" by Eric Fiedor and Pierce Pettis, on Pollyanna's Attic
"(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman" by Carole King, on We've Been Waiting For You
"Forever Young" by Bob Dylan, on We've Been Waiting for You
"Christmas Must Be Tonight" by Robbie Robertson, on Christmas: An Irrational Season

I do not think that you could classify some of the songs she has recorded that were written by others as "covers." There are the hymns "They Will Know We Are Christians" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" which would not be called "covers," since they are widely done in churches. The same goes for "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "Angels We Have Heard on High." "You Bring Me Joy," on Sing Me To Sleep, Mommy, was an original song by another songwriter, but I do not know if it's ever been recorded elsewhere.

Anyway, my vote for the best cover is "Love is So Blind." I just love everything about that song. She sings it so well with so much energy in her voice, and the arrangement is fabulous. I've never heard the original recording by Mark Heard, but it's hard to imagine that it is better than Carolyn's interpretation. It's a cool song. Go and buy it from iTunes -- well worth the 99¢!

As for possible future covers, I'd love to see her do some more interpretations of Rich Mullins's songs, since she was so close to him and probably has a head full of fresh ideas for those beloved songs. I'd especially love to hear her reinvent "Let Mercy Lead" or "Alrightokuhhuhamen." I would also get a kick out of what she might do with any of Keith Green's tunes. Far out!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Just Pretending -- Take Two

I just re-read my post about "Just Pretending" from Pollyanna's Attic, and I've re-thought or expounded on a couple different things.

The first is that we cannot hide from God. Too often, we think that the outward things are keeping God from seeing our true selves. In this context, the ideas of not being who we are and "just pretending" are pitiful self-delusion.

I try to close my eyes like a child, playing at a game of hide-and-seek
If I cannot see the Lord, then truly Lord, You cannot see me.
--Jennifer Knapp, "Romans"

To this end, "Just Pretending" makes sense. We cannot get our lives right before we come to the Lord. We can only get ourselves honest enough to admit we need Him, and then come to Him with humilty and gratitude. When it comes to our Heavenly Father, we are just prolonging our pain unless we can "just be who we are."

The second thing is that life is indeed a potent concoction of "mess and mystery." I think my quarrel with "Just Pretending" is that so often today, people see the inherent messiness of it all as an excuse to unload their entire self-destructive ethos upon society at large. That is a denial of the Spirit of self-control, and it troubles me greatly. I am pretty certain that Carolyn no more thinks the object of "being real" consists of "vomiting our wretchedness" upon the general public any more than I. I just differ from her in thinking that people today need very little encouragement to "get real" and need far more encouragement to exhibit propriety.

A third thing that comes to mind is the statistics that show that if people in an unhappy marriage are able to grit their teeth and stick with it for five more years, most couples find that their marriage will undergo a transformation into a positive and happy union. In essence, a determination to "just pretend" -- to go through the motions without the feeling behind them -- can be an amazingly beneficial one for the "pretenders" and society as a whole. A more prosaic example is the wrestling that I have every few weeks or so, wherein I have no desire to attend church services. (A heathenistic lifestyle dies hard.) I grit my teeth and "pretend" to like it, and the Holy Spirit never fails to make that charade a reality.

Anyway, those are three things I wanted to add to my post about "Just Pretending." Never have any other writer's songs stuck in my craw the way, for better or worse, that so many of Carolyn Arends's have. What a testament to her songwriting abilities!

Just Pretending

I think that one of the reasons that I wanted to start this fan blog was the song "Just Pretending" from Pollyanna's Attic. For those of you who stumbled unwittingly onto this Carolyn Arends blog, Pollyanna's Attic (PA) was released this past May (on time, too!) and is a collection of songs that Carolyn had held "close to [her] heart but had never recorded." The songs are a little bit darker and "grumpier" than her usual fare, but they are nonetheless masterful expressions of certain ideas that contribute to her Weltanschauung. PA is not one of my favorite albums, but I would be a fool not to see and appreciate the lyrical and musical artistry therein. But, this post is not a review of PA. This post is an argument against the ideas of "Just Pretending."

I was reading an editorial in the Wall Street Journal from September 1, 2006, entitled "Survivor Strategy." This article, about the current season of Survivor's dividing teams along racial lines, was not signed by any particular author, but it was a wise article, indeed. When I read the following sentence, my jaw dropped, because I had never before read someone so succinctly state an idea that had festered in my mind for years: "The therapeutic ethos of recent years has encouraged each of us to get every thought off our chest, lest we suffer from the ordeal of civility." That gave me a jumping off point to articulate why Carolyn's song, "Just Pretending," has really bugged me these past few months.

First of all, the song is brilliant. The lyrics are funny and pointed and very economical. The music is catchy and memorable. She sings it, of course, wonderfully. But, I think, at least in my experience, the point of the song is off-base, off-kilter, misguided. Here are the lyrics:

Just Pretending
Carolyn Arends and Spencer Capier
Nice shirt, and khaki chinos
Dessert and cappuccinos
SUV, he looks good in it
Driving past his credit limit
She's climbing that Stairmaster
Up to Happy Ever After
Though she never seems to get there
She can't stop
No she can't stop
Why do we try so hard?
Life's not some greeting card
Models and movie stars
They're just pretending
They're just pretending
Family full of achievers
Beat the Jones and be the Cleavers
Give the lawn a manicure
No rough edges, that's for sure
Sunday the whole congregation
Doesn't seem to need salvation
Everybody's just terrific
All the time
All the time
Why do we try so hard?
Life's not some greeting card
Models and movie stars
They're just pretending
They're just pretending
Everybody's under pressure
Got to get our acts together
Living out these scripted roles
Tidy and predictable
What if we just all agreed
To wear our hearts on wrinkled sleeves
And live the mess and mystery
Of a real life
Live real life
Why do we try so hard?
Life's not some greeting card
If we're not who we are
We're just pretending
Why do we try so hard?
Life's not some greeting card
Models and all those movie stars
They're just pretending
They're just pretending
© Songs of Peer, LTD./Mr. Marley's Music (ASCAP)/ Spencer Capier Music (SOCAN)

Two different themes of this song are mistaken, I believe. The first is the idea that everyone has this deeper self that they hide from the world in order to conform with society. I think that, for a majority of people, their fancy car, their lovely house, their chisled bodies really are the things that are foremost in their minds -- not masks of conventionality, but faces of such. It is not for everyone to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. Many people are happy in the shallow waters and would drown in the deep. It is easy to forgive Carolyn and Spencer this point, though. They are artists and are, therefore, more likely to think that everyone wrestles with the whys and ways of the world as much as they.

The second idea is that we have this great obligation to "be who we are" to the world at large. I think that this is one of the more selfish notions of recent years -- that everyone we meet must become burdened with the burdens under which we labor. Call me a throwback to Jane Austen's time, but I think that it is uncivilized merely to grouse to strangers and prostrate ourselves weeping in the presence of casual acquaintances. I have always been more sense than sensibility, I suppose. Nobody wanted to smack Marianne Dashwood more than I throughout that whole novel.

I need to remind myself that Carolyn is from Canada, and maybe in Canada people live these stifled lives of quiet desperation. If so, I might have to move up there, because they certainly do not here in America. Every little pecadillo, every dirty thought or sinful action, is not only brought out to the public in the harsh light of day, but often it is celebrated. I think of that former governor of New Jersey, Jim McGreevey, whose disgusting personal debaucheries are making the circuit of talk shows on his tour promoting the book wherein he lovingly detailed them. Or that vile Mark Foley who circumvented as best he could accepting responsibility for being a degenerate by revealing that he'd been, a) molested by a priest and b) was an alcoholic, anyway. Or those more than five thousand women who just had to let the world know in petition form that, heck yes, they murdered their babies in the womb, and heck yes, they sure were so proud of that fact that they had to shout it out. Here are nasty people who did nasty things either ducking responsibility by revealing intensely personal things to the world or celebrating their nastiness by reveling in the intensely personal things. They do not take the form of "confessions," which are good for the soul and necessary, I believe, but rather are shameless declarations of moral relativism that, frankly, make me wish to puke.

Civility is conscientious self-control, and self-control is the earmark of civilization. You simply cannot have a functioning society wherein people vomit their wretchedness upon the world at large. We have seen, here in America, our culture devolve into a cesspool wherein vice is treated as disease, i.e. without fault attached, and those things which ought to be hidden away deep within for the Holy Spirit to work on are flaunted as quirky eccentricities. Indeed, this country has been a place where people feel, unfortunately, very comfortable "just be[ing] who [they] are." And no one is shamed into suffering the ordeal of civility.

That is not to say that each person ought not to have a safe network of family and friends in which they can be who they are. Jane Austen confided everything to her older sister, Cassandra; and Cassandra prudently destroyed the more personal aspects of those letters upon Jane's death. Now, to scholars and fans of Miss Austen, this loss of the completely unreserved Jane is painful and frustrating; but, I cannot help but believe in my heart that Cassandra was justified in protecting the personal parts of Jane from the world, and, indeed, the world from the more personal side of Jane. It was, in a way, an act of grace, because, within grace, the unclean parts are made clean and wholeness is revealed where fractured shambles were formerly assembled. Jane was allowed wholeness in her relationship with Cassandra, and Cassandra made the Jane of history cleansed in return.

This grace cannot be found, though, in a defiant display of our sin to the greater world, because, instead of cleansing the sinner and restoring the good, it rips apart the moral fabric of society and draws the culture further into the murky morass of relativism and unaccountability. How much worse off American culture is today after generations of people who not only wore their hearts on wrinkled sleeves, but on filthy, shredded, bloodied sleeves! We are not only worse off, we are on the edge of decay.

Maybe I'm reading too much into the lyrics of "Just Pretending." It is, after all, merely a song -- a good song at that. My wish is that more people felt obligated to try a little harder. To live their lives in a more tidy and predictable fashion. To keep their lawns mowed and their bodies reasonably in shape (especially if they insist on wearing spandex). To save their deeper, darker secrets and desires for their best friends and their families, and not to unleash those burdens on the world at large. To feel more pressure to get their acts together and be better citizens and not make society and others pay the price for their bad decisions and hurtful actions. A little pretending is not a bad thing, it can keep a person doing what is right instead of what he feels. That is one of the cornerstones of a righteous society, and it is one that we need to reclaim.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Confessions of a Groupie

Oh dear. I looked it up in the dictionary, and I AM a groupie. I've joked for years that I am a Carolyn Arends groupie, but I never really thought that I was. I mean, groupie. Sheesh, that just sounds sort of pitiful and weird. But, today, Webster's has confirmed my fears.

groupie \'grĂ¼-pee\ n (1967) 1: a fan of a rock group who usu. follows the group around on concert tours 2: an admirer of a celebrity who attends as many of his or her public appearances as possible 3: ENTHUSIAST, AFICIONADO

I'll take definition number three, thank you very much. Unfortunately, the first two apply equally well.

A light will shine through, though. I found some groupie justification from the unlikely source of this past weekend's Seattle Times. The staff writer, Patrick MacDonald, was writing of Bob Dylan (whose concert tour is hitting Seattle on Friday), but he captured a bit of my own admiration for Carolyn when he wrote:

But Dylan is different. He's showing how great rock stars should age -- by reinventing the past and moving toward the future. Dylan performs his classics from the '60s and '70s, but he short-circuits your expectations by doing them differently every single time. I've seen him perform the same song two nights in a row in two entirely different ways. He doesn't give fans what they want, but rather what he wants. He remains true to himself, and, in so doing, remains a creative force that fans young and old can relate to. (Emphasis mine)

Now, Bob Dylan is about one hundred and twenty years old and not an artist in whom I am particularly interested, but what MacDonald wrote about him is transferable to any truly gifted musical artist -- that ability to keep constantly in touch with their creative center, whether that creativity is fueling new songs or keeping older songs fresh and vibrant. You will never see the same concert twice -- even if the same songs are played.

And that, my friends, is why I never pass up a chance to see Carolyn Arends and Spencer Capier performing live in any venue. There is always something new and unexpected to be heard when those two geniuses get together and jam. It is exciting and breathtaking to see them feed off of each other's immense talent. You feel like you're experiencing some of the echoes of eternity, when that overwhelming Creative force flows out through those human instruments, and you're swept up into something that transcends the roles of players and audience and becomes measured in cupfuls of sublimity. Occasionally, I have seen Carolyn Arends perform with someone other than Spencer Capier, and that, too, is an amazing experience (a particular 2002 concert at Pepperdine in Malibu, CA with a young rock-star-genius-boy -- Adrian? -- who added a definite hardcore edge to the set is one that always comes to mind).

So, I suppose I am a groupie, but no one deserves a groupie more than Carolyn Arends, because she never gives of her talent with a half-heart or simply goes through the motions. At one point, I was seeing her in concert every other month or so, and I never saw the same show twice. The jokes? Well, the jokes are often the same (still good, mind you, but she tends to find a shtick and stick with it). But the MUSIC! The music keeps growing and growing and growing. And I will never cease to wonder at that and be grateful for it.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


I can only imagine what was going through the LDS missionaries' minds when I accepted their information card and then asked, "May I give you something in return?"

I am certain that they thought I was off to get a tract of some kind that would show them (maybe in Chick cartoon form) how they were bound for hell. This is a favorite Christian outreach that avoids having serious discussions about the nature of salvation and the truth of the Living God.

I don't much like tracts, can you tell?

I do like Mormons quite a bit.

Anyway, I got a spare copy of Carolyn Arends's Pollyanna's Attic from the office and handed it to them.

"I'd like you to have this, " I said. "She's a Christian singer/songwriter who lives up north in British Columbia, and I think her music is fantastic. Please give it a listen, and if it isn't quite your style, please pass it along to someone you know who may like it."

Need I say that they looked relieved? They accepted my offering with gratitude and warmth. I'm sure that was the first time someone wanted simply to give them music without any hellfire strings attached. I told them that I would pray for their safety as they fulfilled their missions obligation. And, indeed, I have.

Long has the therapeutic administration of the latest Carolyn Arends CD been my particular "ministry." I have a list of about eight friends who automatically get sent a new album when one is released. I have also given CDs to the entire ministry staff at our church (not without an ulterior motive, I confess -- I wanted them to book a concert with her). This is the first time I have given one of her albums to a stranger, and certainly the first time I have given one as a response to another religion's missionaries. I think that this is a good approach. I really respect the fact the the LDS church fully prepares and funds missionaries, and I have no desire to provoke these fine, young men. But, who wouldn't benefit from listening to the honey-tinged voice and soul-searing lyrics of the singular Mrs. A.?

I think I shall have to keep more spare copies of her albums around the house. This could start a revolution!